It has long been established that social movement organizations (SMOs) adopt many business-like practices in the pursuit of social change. These practices typically include acquiring labor, capital, and talent through a competitive process. Social movement organizations will then appropriate those resources toward acquiring the attention of the public and political officials. In order to sustain such attention, professional SMOs must engage with the public through both presenting self-initiated messages and availing themselves for further messages if prompted. After a publicized demonstration concludes, a professional SMO should prepare to receive–and answer–follow-up telephone calls.
In order to acquire the commerce of potential customers and possibly divert such commerce from competitors, local businesses will traditionally provide their contact information and location in community directories. Likewise, in order to acquire the attention of the public and possibly divert such attention from competitors, SMOs may provide their contact information and location in community directories. With the global rise of communication infrastructure, such directories have grown exponentially in scale and made great strides in centralizing previously fragmented information. One’s inclusion in these vast directories is typically cheap, if not free, and extremely convenient for organizations and the broader public alike.
Social directories have grown to such an extent that one can now locate the nearest League of Women Voters chapter in the same manner one could find the closest Chinese takeout restaurant. While such a statement applies to numerous online directories, here I am specifically referring to Yahoo! Local. On its front page, the service informs organizations that they can “Get noticed online” and “get ahead of the competition,” ideals attractive to both businesses and SMOs.
From the standpoint of a researcher on organizations and social movements, Yahoo! Local offers another attractive feature: an API that permits up to 5,000 free requests a day. This feature means that anyone with basic computer programming skills and an API key can request a high volume of data from the directory on US organizations of their choosing for no cost.
The potential interested me, so I wrote some R code. In order for Yahoo! Local to answer the API requests it requires the user to provide a query string, i.e., some text to look for; basic location information, such as a city or zipcode; and an API key, or a code that Yahoo! provides for identification purposes. The user may provide additional information to refine the search. For a demonstrative run, I looked up the locations for the chapters of the League of Women Voters across the 275 most populated cities in the US. It took less than an hour for all of the API requests to be answered across all of the cities. Following the collection, duplicate entries were then removed and I mapped their locations along with their contact information using Google Fusion Tables.
(Click anywhere on the map to access the large, interactive version.)
The distribution of leagues (chapters) follows expectations rather closely. The 181 leagues are located more commonly in heavily populated urban areas and state capitols. While this finding likely reflects an aspect of the sample, the most populated 275 cities in the US, there’s more to this data than simple population effects. For instance, some of the larger cities in the US did not have a single chapter in the directory, including El Paso, Memphis, and Las Vegas. This discrepancy is confounded by the fact that many of the searches also captured some leagues in surrounding cities (a default setting in the API).
The method does have a few shortcomings, though. First, it presupposes that existing organizations have an entry within in the directory. That said, one can reason that the most effective and sustainable organizations will seek visibility in directories like this one. Second, the organization’s name must be reasonably searchable. Generic names and common abbreviations will likely be troublesome. Third, the organization must want to be found, ruling out clandestine SMOs. Fourth, sometimes the same local organization will have slightly different duplicate entries, indicated by the same telephone number or a near-identical address. Such minor differences likely reflect the move of a headquarters or administrative error. This limitation requires a few judgement calls by human coders to determine which local organization to keep. Lastly, dynamics cannot be inferred from this method, as information on an organization’s founding and dissolution remain unknown. Though such limitations warrant some scrutiny, similar shortcomings exist among most other accepted methods of creating an organizational census.
Despite the limitations, I believe using online directories to locate SMOs offers a number of advantages. The method is free, fast, ethical, and replicable. It can be used for most any public organization in the US, including businesses and social services. Also, because it provides spatial information, the data provided can be paired with other space-specific data, like census demographics, electoral results, and subnational legislation.